Archive for the ‘music’ Category
One of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is called “The Wounded.” It aired in season four, on January 28, 1991, so I might have caught it as an eight-year-old, but more likely on reruns. In this episode, a renegade Starfleet captain goes on a rampage with his ship, destroying a bunch of Cardassian vessels, thinking the Cardassians were preparing for war. The Enterprise has hunt him down, and they use transporter chief Miles O’Brien (played by the terrific Colm Meaney), that captain’s former crewman, to try to reason with him. It’s a great episode for a number of reasons: great plot, great acting, heck, anything with an O’Brien focus is pretty great. But the best part of the episode by far is when O’Brien and the rogue captain get together and sing the Irish war ballad, “The Minstrel Boy.”
From the moment I heard it. I loved that song. Perhaps is was because I played Dungeons and Dragons as a boy, and the song had very D&Dish lyrics. At that point in my life, I was attracted to anything that talked of swords and battles. But I think early on, even at this juncture, it was the Irishness of the song, the ethnic-ness of the song. It had survived into the fictional 24th century, yet we still felt its Irish roots, perhaps because O’Brien sang it.
A few years later I encountered the song again. It was a bizarre experience.
If you’re a secular Jewish child of a certain age, and your parents have a record collection, it’s very likely that one of those records is of Paul Robeson. Yes, I’m referring to Paul Robeson, everyone’s favourite African American Communist football player/lawyer/actor, who also sang African American spirituals and gospel music along with traditional folk songs from all over the world. My father introduced me to Robeson through his rendition of the song of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising aka the “Partisan Song” aka in Yiddish “Der Partizaner Lid” or “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say”). It’s a song that energizes me. I always imagined that if I were to have become a professional prizefighter, that would have been my entrance music.
But Paul Robeson has many other great songs. He sang powerful spirituals like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” He sang passionate renditions of “Joe Hill” and “John Brown’s Body.” He sang the Scottish hymn “Loch Lomond” and the Irish tune “Danny Boy.” And sure enough, he also sang a hauntingly beautiful version of “The Minstrel Boy.”
It makes me shiver every time I hear it. Through song, Robeson united himself to ethnic traditions that were not his own, and yet of course, they were his own, for they resonated with him the way Black spirituals did.
So what is “The Minstrel Boy” exactly? Wikipedia writes:
The Minstrel Boy is an Irish patriotic song written by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) who set it to the melody of The Moreen, an old Irish air. It is widely believed that Moore composed the song in remembrance of a number of his friends, whom he met while studying at Trinity College, Dublin and who had participated in (and were killed during) the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
The article goes on to note that the song was popular among Irish soldiers in the American Civil War and then again in the First World War. It became commonplace at funeral services held by institutions with disproportionately Irish membership like police and fire departments. Though often only the melody is played, the lyrics are simple and beautiful:
The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”
The Minstrel fell! But the foreman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”
Much to my surprise and delight, I heard the song again, the melody without the lyrics, in the middle of the song “Wandering Ways” by my favourite band, Great Big Sea. Great Big Sea are a folk/celtic/rock bank from Newfoundland. They play traditional Newfoundland, English, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, and French Canadian music spiced up a bit to sound more like rock n’ roll. Their concerts have the intensity of heavy metal/punk performances, but instead of mosh pits there is Irish jigging (I’ve been to seven). Though they write some of their own songs, most are traditional folk songs, and their album liner notes come with explanations of their origins. Their songs are also often medleys, with different ditties contained as a bridge between verses. “The Minstrel Boy” is contained within the recording of “Wandering Ways” from the 2012 album Safe Upon The Shore.
One of the great appeals of Great Big Sea is their incredible respect for the tradition of music that came before them, that made what they do possible. And this reminded me of a passage from one of my favourite novel, The Joke by Milan Kundera. It’s Kundera’s first novel, written in 1965 (published in 1967), a brilliant and hilarious commentary on the absurdities of Soviet era Communism in Czechoslovakia before the Prague Spring of 1968. But Kundera also has a background in ethnomusicology, and in one passage, one of the characters, Ludvik, explains the strength of folk music, and its appeal to socialists and communists:
The romantics imagined that a girl cutting grass was struck by inspiration and immediately a song gushed from her like stream from a rock. But a folk song is born differently from a formal poem. Poets create in order to express themselves, to say what it is that makes them unique. In the folk song, one does not stand out from others but joins with them. The folk song grew like a stalactite. Drop by drop enveloping itself in new motifs, in new variants. It was passed from generation to generation, and everyone who sang it added something new to it. Every song had many creators, and all of them modestly disappeared behind their creation.
While this conception of the folk song may be even too anti-individualistic for my tastes, I appreciate the sentiment greatly. The music I like most is that which makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself, bigger than that particular song or artist. Maybe that’s why I love the hora so much. The individual artist is basically irrelevant in the joy of the hora circle. I feel a similar communal spirit at Great Big Sea concerts, or really whenever I hear folk music, especially celtic folk music. I’m not Irish, but I respect and understand the tradition.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the creativity of individual artists. But I’m also amused when they fail to recognize what came before. A few years ago I was at Nields concert, the folk-singing sister duo of Nerissa and Katrina Nields. In 2008, they had released an album, called Sister Holler, where all the tracks were in some sense folk songs that borrowed (or stole, as they admitted) from works that had come before. To introduce one such song, “Abbington Sea Fair,”they told a story. First, the admitted that “Abbington Sea Fair” bore a clear (though not overwhelming) resemblance to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in music and lyrics. Of course, when Simon and Garfunkel had released “Scarborough Fair,” Bob Dylan got upset because it resembled his song “Girl From the North Country.” Nerissa Nields explained that all this was kind of silly, because all three songs are based on a late medieval melody and lyrics. Nothing comes from nothing, and tradition trumps originality.
And so “The Minstrel Boy” fits in to this tradition. It appears in different but similar iterations across the generations and even centuries, forever retaining its communal and ethnic power, uniting people not because of the creativity of who wrote it or performed it, but by the feelings it invokes. You don’t want to be listening to these kinds of songs alone, but rather singing and dancing with other people. “The Minstrel Boy” is a sad song, but it is still communal, to be sung solemnly together. Songs like “The Minstrel Boy” allow you to appreciate that which exists outside of yourself, that which existed before, and that which will exist after. It’s not divine, it’s the power of people, community, and art merging together. You don’t need to be Irish to feel Irish when you listen, to feel intertwined with that proud history and tradition. From Thomas More in the 18th century to Paul Robeson in the 20th, Great Big Sea in the 21st and Miles O’Brien in the 24th, the minstrel boy, forever slain, continues to sing.
Though teen pop sensation Justin Bieber is a fellow Canadian, I’m not usually in the business of defending him. I do not have “Bieber fever.” I can’t say I know any of his work, except for “Baby” featuring Ludacris, a song so catchy you’d have to be without a soul not to hum along. I know Bieber hails from western Ontario, I know that he was discovered on youtube, and I know that there is a website dedicated to lesbians who look just like him.
So I was pretty surprised when Bieber came up today in the context of every Jewish studies student and scholar’s favourite inescapable topic: the Holocaust.
You see, apparently Bieber and buddies were over in Amsterdam, and they decided to pay an after hours visit to the Anne Frank House (presumably they weren’t baked at the time). Anne Frank House is museum set up in the house where Anne Frank, the most famous victim of the Holocaust, stayed hidden for two years in the early 1940s. The teenage girl chronicled her life in her famous diary before the Nazis finally captured her and sent her to a concentration camp. I visited Anne Frank House in 2001. It’s a pretty moving place. And apparently Bieber was moved too, so moved that he left this note in the museum’s guest book:
Truly Inspring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.
At first glance, this story seemed more like an incident from a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, a show with a distinguished record of hilarious Holocaust humour. It mixed the solemn with the silly so effectively it had to be some kind of joke, right? But no, it was the real life Justin Bieber expressing his genuine feelings after visiting Anne Frank House. He hoped she would have been one of his screaming, adoring fans. A belieber. So what are we to make of this?
Many have remarked that Bieber displayed an amazing degree of narcissism. He went to a museum that highlighted the horros of the Holocaust, and yet he made his reaction all about him, indeed, all about his celebrity. Unbeliebable!
And yet, and yet… here’s the other thing. Justin Bieber may have been right.
If you look at Anne Frank’s journal, later titled The Diary of a Young Girl, you’ll notice how incredibly normal she was. Frank was, in many ways, your typical teenager. She cared about her appearance. She had a crush on a boy hidden with her. She complained of boredom. She gave gifts to her family. She was aware of the latest fashion and literature and music. And so, in another setting, in another lifetime, Anne Frank might very well have been a belieber.
Inadvertently, through his arrogant and asinine message, Justin Bieber reasserted and clarified the central message of the diary. Frank should be remembered for her resilience, for her nobility in the face of mortal danger. She was indeed “a great girl.” But she was great precisely because she made her life so relatable, even under a Nazi occupation to which few can relate. Her diary is an account of her struggle for normalcy under hideously abnormal circumstances. But under other circumstances, she’d probably be singing along to “Baby’ just like the rest of us.
I live in Columbia med school housing up in Washington Heights. It’s convenient for my wife, Julie, who goes to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Our apartment is great. But I live in a med school bubble, and I’m not a medical student. Also, the neighbourhood is a bit of a bar and restaurant wasteland. I don’t speak Spanish, and it’s 85% Dominican, so it’s difficult to feel like a part of the community. And I’m not religious enough for the bochers further north around Yeshiva University.
Further south, however, I just discovered a marvelous piece of history. At Jumel Terrace, just east of 160th and St. Nicholas, sits the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Built in 1765, it’s the oldest house in Manhattan. George Washington lived there during the Revolutionary War, and hosted a dinner in 1790 including John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Aaron Burr lived there in the early 19th century. The mansion is now a museum; I got to see the dining room where that dinner took place, and Washington’s bedroom, servants’ quarters, the women’s rooms, the parlour, and more. In Washington’s bedroom, a small, amusing exhibit was set-up called “Washington’s Facebook.” A cartoon cardboard cutout of Washington sat with his laptop, on his Facebook page, his cell phone on the table. The implication is that similar to the recent Arab Spring, if Washington had had access to Facebook and Twitter, he would have used them to foment his own revolution.
Far more interesting to me than this colonial history, however, is the more recent history that surrounds the place. The bookstore, Word, or Jumel Terrace Books, open only by appointment, sits across from the Mansion at 426 W. 160th. It has a remarkable collection of African American and Africana literature. It also has a lot of left-wing, Marxist, and revolutionary books, noting that “books are weapons.” It even has revolutionary board games.
Class Struggle, the board game, serves “to prepare for life in capitalist America.” Funny, I thought Monopoly did that. Class Struggle is “for kids from 8 to 80.” Fun for all ages! It also comes with “directions for possible classroom use.” And it’s educational too!
Then there’s this one:
The X Game, with a large quote from Malcolm X on the front, asks us to “Stop the System By Any Means Necessary.” It is a “cooperative game,” noting “it’s a race to achieve unity–the key to Black liberation” and “winning requires working together to beat the ‘System’ … no one can do it alone!” Sounds perfect for those non-competitive parents, but I don’t think Amy Chua would approve.
Even more interesting, however, are those African American elites who came to live in the still beautiful section of the neighbourhood, once called Harlem Heights or Sugar Hill. W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Count Basie, Joe Louis, and Paul Robeson all made their homes in this neighbourhood. Robeson first lived at 16 Jumel Terrace, but then, like several of the others, moved into 555 Edgecombe Avenue (also known as Paul Robeson Boulevard). Today, Alicia Keys lives in Robeson’s apartment, continuing the tradition. Maybe the history helps her retain her New York State of Mind
As is obligatory for Creem magazine wannabes like myself, I am a big fan of Wilco, whose latest album the Whole Love, was a surprisingly excellent work for a band that had descended into unfortunate levels of NPR-accepted statis. Today they posted on their website that they are releasing the album on Piano Roll (an early April Fool’s joke, I assume). Piano Roll, according to my best wikipeding, is the process of recording music via long sheets of paper with notches cut in it. A player piano is required to hear it. They haven’t been widely used since 1927, when shellac 78s started to take off. As they announced:
“Wilco pride themselves on authenticity and a respect of the American musical tradition, so what better way to honor that heritage than to listen to The Whole Love on a barely functioning piano in a dusty antique store,” writes Chief Wilco Strategist Lucy Lillabee. “Besides, these things cost like $1 to make, and hipsters are going to eat this shit up.”
The joke hits a bit home. First it was vinyl, and carrying around new 33s was a sure sign of taste. Now, as our vast readers of hipsters are surely aware, the cool kids are selling their recordings on a hipper and even less practical format: cassette tapes. As anyone who has been to one of the thousands of new bars in Carroll Gardens or Fort Greene that force their employees to dress like a Prohibition-era barmen knows (or has taken a look at Trader Joe’s turn-of-the-century bourgeois aesthetic) there is a vast market for pseudo-authenticity, for consumer items whose very appeal is that they appear not to be consumer items, relics from an innocent time, goods whose exchange value is astronomically increased by seeming to be all use-value.
Of course, there is no more evidence of being an insufferable hipster than humorlessly complaining about the insufferableness of hipsters, so let me show a little empathy for the luddism that Wilco is (lovingly) mocking.
As absurd as it all is, I think the hipster love affair with vinyl (and cassette tapes, and homemade pickles, etc…) actually speaks a bit to the dullness of digital culture. People increasingly participate in culture digitally: they download music from itunes (or steal it), they read books on their kindle that they bought with one button on amazon, they watch movies streaming on netflix, and tv on hulu. As a result, the places and cultures that used to be hubs of these things are dying out. Records stores are going extinct, video-rental stores (like the famous Kim’s of the East Village) are out of business, and even the big-box book stores are going under.
Sure, record stores were run by snarky aloof losers, book-stores by dweeby know-it-alls, and video-stores by the worst of them. But they were still little cultural hubs, where you could learn about cool new bands, have a book suggested, etc… At their best, book stores (like say Cambridge’s Raven or New York’s Book Culture) can feel like mini-temples to all the knowledge you don’t yet have, inspiring you to want to read and know more.
So I’m of two minds about the digital transmission of art. On one hand it democratizes it, letting every kid in every small town download whatever they want. On the other hand, it removes so much of the mystery and meaning out of the experience. This might sound hyperbolic, but things like itunes disenchants the experience of buying music, just as kindles do the same for reading. Last week I was in Other Music, an insufferably hip but kind of charming record store (referenced as Alan Sparhawk’s “favorite record store” on Low’s classic album The Great Destroyer), and came across an early Belle and Sebastian album on vinyl. I had forgotten about all the little stories that Belle and Sebastian used to put on their album covers, the unique imagery they employed on all their releases (close-ups of precious looking models with pretentious literature in their hand, all faded some monochrome wash) and just holding the record induced some sort of twee “episode of the madeleine” moment, bringing me back to my days as a college dj, when I first started listening to the band. Belle and Sebastian, in particular, cultivated an entire aesthetic to their recordings, something only fully appreciated if you can hold the physical object in your hands.
There is a totality to the experience of most art; you never experience anything with only one sense. Music brings to mind images and experiences, you remember the shape and feel of the books you read, etc… I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like digital art lacks much of this, its one-dimensional and flat, stripped of the context that the artist consciously and unconsciously meant for it. The record as object used to have a certain magic to it, as the portal into the artistic experience. I know lots of bibliophiles feel the same way about the printed book. Certain books and record sleeves even have a particular smell of fresh paper.
With music in particular, the inability to quickly shift between songs and albums on vinyl changes the experience completely. You are stuck with the music, forced to listen to every song in a way that you aren’t with your ipod, which encourages a sort of musical ADD. Sure, those filler tracks on Guided by Voices albums were annoying, but waiting through a crappy song like “Auditorium” in order to get to “Motor Away” was an essential part of the experience. The Times just reported on a similar problem with readers and their ipad, as readers can’t concentrate on long books for long, without checking their email or facebook. I imagine long or more challenging literature will suffer if everyone is interspersing their twitter feed with their Pynchon.
Which is a long way to say that, yes, I paid $27 for The Whole Love on vinyl back when it came out, when I could have gotten it for $9.99 on itunes. I haven’t yet invested in a player piano, but maybe some day…
According to Facebook (as of August 2nd, 2011), 20,276,298 people like The Beatles, 7,244,166 people like The Rolling Stones, and 4,405,856 people like Elvis Presley. Beethoven, the loser, clocks in with only 790,240 fans. Even Mozart (966,170) beats him, and Bach almost does (701,441). I was pleased to see 11,823,218 people like Nirvana but was disturbed to see that 20,053,533 like Metallica (though, I’m going to guess that 90% of these fans are nerds from former Soviet Republics). 20 million like Metallica while only 206,623 like Slayer! Despite the fact that Reign in Blood is clearly a better album than Kill em All. 7,103,826 like Johnny Cash, but a depressingly small 1,985,086 like The Clash. An atrociously high 9,157,292 like The Doors. The fact that more people like the Doors than like the Rolling Stones is best evidence of the innate depravity of the human race I’ve probably ever seen.
Appropriately only 243,344 like the Velvet Underground, though, of course, everyone who did, has already formed a band. More people like Minor Threat (227,233) than like Fugazi (141,533) even though Ian Mackaye led both of them, Fugazi still, sort of, exists, and, let’s face it, Fugazi is way more interesting. Only 1,769,379 like Bruce Springsteen, which I wish was accurate, because maybe his ticket prices would go down.
22,191,162 like Barack Obama, and I’m personally offended that he beats the Beatles. John Lennon never tried to shred the social safety net or extend taxes for the rich. I’m proud to say, though, that the Simpsons handily crush Obama, with 32,896,906. The amazing punk band the Minutemen, at 22,367, appear to have crushed the racist assholes of the same name, who have as of now only 74 fans. As near as I can tell, though, the winner is Michael Jackson, who appropriately crushes the competition with 38,865,724 fans.
(The real winners, by the way are here). The top sites are Facebook–lame!–, Texas Hold-em Poker–stupid–, and Eminem–surprising! Is it still 1999?)
As some of the other entries in our “Stand Up and Sing” contest have already established, great political music does not have to promote a specific party or platform. Often, it’s sufficient for performers to use their music to unleash pent-up anger, question the status quo, or raise possibilities for an alternative future. These are musicians after all, not politicians.
Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster,” released in 1978, is a case in point. The song expresses the band’s contempt for British repression in their native Norther Ireland, but doesn’t support any particular nationalist faction. In fact, the group had members (and followers) from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. Maybe the band’s rejection of factionalism–combined with its fierce indignation toward contemporary life in Belfast–helps give “Alternative Ulster” its continued urgency.
Depressed by current events, I’ve turned to Matisyahu for comfort. The former Matthew Paul Miller, a secular Jew turned baal tsehuvah (i.e. he has become an extremely religious Jew) is a hip hopping hasid strongly influenced by reggae music. He frequently rhymes about Jewish themes, which I enjoy, even if his religiosity can make me, an atheist/agnostic Reconstructionist Jew, somewhat uncomfortable. My favourite song of his, however , speaks to the secular and religious. It’s called “Jerusalem,” and I’d like to nominate it for our “Stand Up and Sing” political song contest.
The chorus, “Jerusalem if I forget you, fire not gonna come from my tongue, Jerusalem if I forget you, let ye right hand forget what it’s supposed to do,” is a Biblical reference, from Psalms 137:5-6. The actual passage reads: “If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.” This is classic (if not classical) Judaism: even when you’re happy, even when you’re celebrating, like at a wedding, for example, you should still remind yourself of tragedy, so break a glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The first verse of Psalm 137 is the famous, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion,” made famous by the reggae band The Melodians as “Rivers of Babylon” in the soundtrack for 1972 Jamaican movie The Harder They Come. The Rastafarian/Jewish-Zionist connection rears its head again. Supposedly, the prophet Jeremiah penned Psalm 137 by those very rivers of Babylon sometime after 586 BCE, where he lamented his people’s exile aka The Babylonian Captivity, praying for a return to his homeland, Ancient Israel, and its capitol, Jerusalem.
Of course, one needn’t read this passage so literally. In fact, Matisyahu himself doesn’t. In the song’s first verse, he sings:
3,000 years with no place to be
And they want me to give up my milk and honey
Don’t you see, it’s not about the land or the sea
Not the country but the dwelling of his majesty
I guess Matisyahu is including the Jewish people’s sojourn in Egypt, but he’s referring to 3000 years of life in the Diaspora (Jewish life outside of Israel/Zion). Or is he? For it seems that the “milk and honey” he’s being forced to give up is not something physical, “not the country,” but in fact “the dwelling of his majesty.” This is not referring to the King of Israel, but probably to God himself/herself/itself. But that’s only if you read the song religiously. If you read it as a proud secular Jew and ethnic particularist, like I do, you can still read it in a depoliticized fashion: this is not Zionism (the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jew have a complicated relationship with modern Zionism anyhow). Instead the “dwelling of his majesty” could mean the spirit of Judaism, or Jewish identity, if your heart and mind. I think that’s how Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism (the denomination to which I belong, as did the pre-hassidic Matthew Miller), would probably read it.
The next verse is more expressly political, or at least historical.
Rebuild the temple and the crown of glory
Years gone by, about sixty
Burn in the oven in this century
And the gas tried to choke, but it couldn’t choke me
I will not lie down, I will not fall asleep
They come overseas, yes they’re trying to be free
Erase the demons out of our memory
Change your name and your identity
Afraid of the truth and our dark history
Why is everybody always chasing we
Cut off the roots of your family tree
Don’t you know that’s not the way to be
The first line here may refer to the foundation of the modern state of Israel. Yet the next verses are clearly about the Holocaust, and about Jewish assimilation after the tragedy. The last lines, “cut off the roots of your family tree, don’t you know that’s not the way to be,” is quite clearly a paean to Jewish cultural retention, yet it too need not be read religiously. It can just as easily refer to Jewish culture as Jewish religion. In fact, it need not be read Jewishly, but might simply be interpreted as a paean to ethnic particularism. The key idea: it’s schmucky to abandon wholesale the culture from which you sprang. Obviously reality is more complicated than that, but the words get me going each time.
Matisyahu’s message is clearly more religious than political. And yet, he is also trying to bring people together through music. And that’s not just instilling pride in Jews left and right, secular and religious. He’s also performed with Muslim beatboxer Kenny Muhammad. And in a version of one of his most recent hits, the catchy if somewhat naive and generic antiwar song, “One Day,” he performs with Akon. Yes, that Akon: the Senegalese-American Muslim and another of my favourite recording artists. It’s not peace in the Middle East, but it’s something.